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Cosmetic Curiosity: Nearly 4,000-Year-Old Lipstick Found in Formerly Makeup-Free Nation

Discovery of Ancient Lipstick in a Formerly Makeup-Banned Nation
Source: Unsplash

Researchers have discovered the world's oldest lipstick in the most shocking location.

Mar. 19 2024, Published 9:10 a.m. ET

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In a remarkable archaeological revelation, researchers have unearthed a relic in southeastern Iran: the world's oldest physical form of lipstick.

This discovery, dating back to between 1936 B.C. and 1687 B.C., comes in the form of a hand-carved stone vial crafted from the mineral chlorite.

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The vial, resembling a miniature version of today's cylindrical lipstick containers, features a hole at the top for extracting its contents and is believed to have been used during the Bronze Age, likely applied with a brush.

These findings were recently published in Scientific Reports following an in-depth analysis conducted by a team of seven scientists.

Massimo Vidale, one of the researchers involved in the study, emphasized that while the substance found inside the vial resembles a lip-paint, it is presently understood as a hypothesis rather than a confirmed fact.

The vial, measuring approximately two inches tall and three-quarters of an inch wide, bears a striking resemblance to segments of marsh cane, making it thin and easy to handle.

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Vidale noted that while cane segments were commonly used as receptacles during that era, the use of chlorite for this purpose indicates a more prestigious material choice.

The discovery of this ancient lipstick traces back to 2001 when it was recovered from a third-millennium B.C. graveyard in the Kerman province, following a flooding incident near the Halil River.

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Believed to have been utilized by the Jiroft culture, a Bronze Age civilization, the vial remained unknown until its accidental discovery during the flooding.

Upon closer examination, researchers found that the lip paint had transformed into a powder due to more than 3,700 years of dehydration. Microscopic analysis revealed dark pigments, indicating that the original product boasted an intense red color.

Further investigation using an environmental scanning electron microscope unveiled components similar to those found in modern cosmetic lip wear, including vegetable oil and wax, alongside hematite, a mineral known for its red coloration.

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Despite the ban on makeup and cosmetics imposed in Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the discovery of the world's oldest lipstick in the country is a testament to its rich cultural heritage. Though restrictions have been relaxed in Iran, many women — including government workers and medical students — are still prohibited from wearing makeup.

While the exact purpose of the lipstick remains uncertain, researchers speculate that it may have been used in Jiroft funeral rituals or as a personal possession for daily use.

As Massimo Vidale reflected on the implications of this discovery, he highlighted the striking similarities between ancient societies and our own, underscoring the enduring human fascination with beauty and adornment across millennia.

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